The Future is Now Here: Mad Max and Dystopian Exploitation | Analysis by Tia Sarkar

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In 1998, director George Miller took a walk through LA. With three Mad Max films behind him, he envisioned a film that was an “almost continuous chase,” but was stuck on one essential component—the plot. Previous Mad Max entries unpacked the unstable social and political systems which inevitably led humans to ruin. Somewhere between that walk and a flight to Australia, Miller conceived of a story in which “violent marauders were fighting, not for oil or for material goods,” but for something else. In an post-apocalyptic race for resources, what if human beings were those resources?

17 years later, there was Mad Max: Fury Road—a distinctly modern and thoroughly energized vision of a dead world marked by ecological collapse and patriarchal exploitation run amok. Set in a barren desert, the film opens with the titular Max being captured and repurposed as a “blood bag” for the soldiers of a warlord dubbed Immorten Joe. Concurrently, Imperator Furiosa, a female lieutenant, is sent out to trade produce for petrol and bullets. Upon realizing Furiosa has smuggled out five of his imprisoned wives in the process, Immortan Joe recruits his entire army—including a “War Boy” and his blood bag Max—to chase them down.

What followed was both a high octane action spectacle and a thoughtful dissection of feminism, environmentalism, and the politics of exploitation and survival. 

In a world with minimal access to water, food, and shelter, the characters of Mad Max: Fury Road are reduced to their utility. Max is not a man but a blood bag. War Boys are weapons. The wives are breeders. Announcing their escape, Immortan Joe’s five wives—Toast the Knowing, Capable, The Dag, Cheedo the Fragile, and The Splendid Angharad—leave a message in bold red on the walls of their prison: WE ARE NOT THINGS. Oppressive regimes, by definition, operate on intensely authoritarian rules, of which women bear the brunt of. If a woman is only a womb, escaping means absolution from your role as a resource. 

Through a brief audio montage at the start of the film, the audience learns how overconsumption and capitalist gain led to the downfall of society. Humans took and took until nothing was left. In due course, this scarcity helped prop up those with money and power, as they became the only ones with access to natural resources. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the scorched landscape is both a literal and symbolic representation of exploitation. Immortan Joe comes to power because he controls what’s left of the environment. The people under him have little ability nor opportunity to overrule him. After all, they need to eat. 

The appeal of dystopian narratives lies in their tether to the present. Desolate wastelands, dried up reservoirs, and crumbling infrastructure feel relevant when most Americans are only a paycheck away from homelessness. After the repeal of Roe v. Wade, it's become a cliche to refer to oneself as an incubator. 

Creating an action film for the ages means recognizing the age we live in—that doom is on the horizon, and is only intensifying with the effects of climate change. Mad Max: Fury Road appeals to our fear—of not only what we are headed towards—but that we are already being exploited by destructive systems far greater than we can imagine. The future is now here. 

Mad Max: Fury Road plays on 35mm January 17 at Ragtag Cinema as part of Science on Screen: Feminist Dystopias. Tickets are on sale now.
Tia Sarkar is the Cinema Operations Coordinator at Ragtag Cinema. She is on Letterboxd.